ZJZ Hospitality Inc.
ZJZ Hospitality Inc. may be relatively small in the industry, but it’s practices and culture are gaining notice and raising the bar.
By Staci Davidson, Managing Editor at Knighthouse Media
ZJZ Hospitality Inc. has had an exciting year. Exciting may not be the best word, but let me explain. The well-regarded hospitality company is growing well and has the ability to take on bigger and bigger projects. At the same time, the Texas-based enterprise had to recover after losing four of its properties to Hurricane Harvey last summer. That’s a level of excitement no one really wants for their business. But ZJZ Hospitality persevered while supporting its employees and the south Texas community. This is just one reason why the company has such a strong reputation in its market.
“If everything went by the book, hospitality would be the easiest job in the world,” CEO and President Deven Bhakta says. “The thing is, it never goes by the book. The job is to adapt.”
But ZJZ does more than adapt – it evolves along with the needs of customers and the market, while keeping a focus on its team members and a high level of service. Bhakta got into this business and launched ZJZ in 1997 by developing a hotel in Port Aransas, Texas. His father was in the motel business, he explains, and they worked together, “borrowing every dime we could,” while Bhakta and his wife worked every job in the hotel. Over time, he says, he realized he wanted something more.
“As I met more people, I found that I gravitated toward people with multiple properties,” he says. “I went all in on one property, then went in on another one, working with family. Then I branched out with partnerships with other people and realized I needed someone to manage the hotels themselves. If I couldn’t operate the properties well, I knew they would fall by the wayside.”
The intent, Bhakta explains, was never solely focused on growth, but to have the best people who could help look over the assets ZJZ was acquiring or developing. His work has produced 16 developed hotels in a 20-year period. The company’s current portfolio includes 11 owned/managed properties and one managed hotel in south Texas. Its properties include an Embassy Suites, Staybridge Suites, Holiday Inn Express and Suites, Courtyard Marriott, Home2 Suites, Best Western, Studio 6 and The Place Hotel in Port Aransas. The company takes pride in being the premier south Texas one-stop-shop for all hotel development and management needs, working to ensure overall revenue growth, operational efficiency and account retention.
“We are small, but we got involved and started using techniques the big guys in hospitality were using,” Bhakta says. “Area managers saw that we were doing well and better than the big guys, and eventually I was sitting on a committee with the owners’ association of IHG Hotels. We grew at our own pace, developing with IHG, Hilton and Marriott. I love development now and I have a senior leadership team who can help absorb the management of the hotels, as we develop more.
“We are seeing opportunities for bigger and bigger projects, and we are working on feasibility of a large one in north Texas,” he continues. “Our goal is to form a standard for the industry, even with a small portfolio. We’ve won several awards from several brands, and people start to notice. We may be smaller, but the quality we offer in terms of construction, the service we put out, the attention we deliver – it feels good to give others insight into how we do what we do and establish that quality standard.”
ZJZ’s standard starts with taking “a family approach to hospitality,” Bhakta says. He may not work exclusively with family any more, but he is dedicated to a family-like work environment because it creates a more positive culture. It is no secret that happy employees yield happy guests, so Bhakta has structured ZJZ to nurture quality talent to ensure a positive and attentive atmosphere for guests. It is a constant focus for the company.
“That is the toughest thing – when you’re smaller, it’s easier to create a family atmosphere because you know everyone,” he says. “As you grow, it gets more difficult, but we work on it. I treat my managers, administrative staff and regional managers as family – I take the same approach with everyone on my staff, and then they carry it forward to their own staffs. I don’t want to make any mistakes in messaging with employees and start taking hard lines. That is how you breed animosity. I want to be more like ‘look guys, we have to do more like this, and this is the reason.’”
A key way in which ZJZ invests in its culture is by encouraging community involvement. Bhakta says it is important that his executives are active in the hotels’ communities, and that they get their staffs involved in local events, like a fundraising walk for charities. “It’s good to all fight for a cause,” he says. “It helps to unite people on something. When you’re all out walking for a charity, it ties everyone together and helps to cultivate better relationships.”
Additionally, Bhakta is the Chairman of the board of directors of the United Corpus Christi Chamber of Commerce as well as the Chairman of the Board of the Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce; one of ZJZ’s hotel’s managers is the chair elect for the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau of Corpus Christi, Texas; company vice presidents’ sits on the local hotel association Board, another is on an economic development board in a different town; and a different vice president is on the board of trustees of a local college. Bhakta notes that even if the organization isn’t specifically hotel-related, it is important to be involved.
“We try to keep ourselves ingrained in the area,” he says. “There are hotels here that have been around for a long time, but we become known because we get involved in everything and that is good for our business. New legislation may come out and hoteliers come out of the wood work, but where have they been for the past 10 years? If that happens here, legislators come to us first because they know us. We want to set an example for other cities and hoteliers.”
After the Storm
ZJZ is constantly growing, Bhakta says, and he is excited to take on projects that are larger in scope than what is has done before. After Hurricane Harvey in August 2017, ZJZ had a lot of rebuilding to do, but it is coming back strongly. ZJZ lost four hotels in the hurricane, and it has two of them back now, one is nearing completion, but one will not be ready until next year.
“Nothing good can come out of something like that, but people can unite together on a common cause,” he says. “We were in the midst of growing and changing offices, but we had to get into a stop pattern. The eye of the storm crossed 30 miles from Corpus Christi, and I am the chair of the Chamber of Commerce in nearby Port Aransas. That is a town of 3,500 people that used to have 100,000 tourists on summer weekends. It devastated everyone, half of the businesses had to close, but we’ve help raise almost $2 million to help the town rebuild as part of the Port Aransas Chamber Foundation.
“It was very trying time for our staff because we had 50 families who were affected,” he continues. “That’s not just 50 employees – every one of them had a family. Some of them just left the area because what they owned was destroyed, and we put up as many as we could in our hotels for as long as we could. Some moved and are doing quite well now, others are ingrained in our other hotels, others we found jobs for. It wasn’t just us – that is something that is difficult for everybody.”
But now, ZJZ is ready to “ignite things and move on,” according to Bhakta. Training is key to that, he explains, because the industry is changing as Millennials travel more, but staff also has to be responsive to older generations of guests who have been traveling for 20 years and expect things to be a certain way. Some guests want to check in on a kiosk and only deal with the front desk staff when there is an issue. Others want to only deal with the front desk, that makes them the most comfortable. Training, Bhakta says, is critical for ensuring a high level of service across the board.
“You have to get your employees comfortable with all of this, or you will have enormous turnover,” he says. “It can be hard to find the right people to execute what the brand or business requires, but we use training to find a happy medium. A lot of good companies do a lot of good things, but we really build with quality. We are keeping our staff to a size where we can manage our properties and not get ahead of ourselves with growth, while staying in tune with the community.
“Our people are such good people, and that makes me proud,” he continues. “They give a good impression of our company when they represent us outside of our hotels at places like conferences, family functions and various events. I’ve heard so many compliments from so many people about my team, and I am very proud of how they represent us.”